CIBER To Help NASA Visualize Beginnings Of The Universe
May 21, 2013

NASA Looks To Examine Beginnings Of The Universe

Peter Suciu for — Your Universe Online

Everything has a beginning and discovering the beginning of the universe could begin next month. On June 4, NASA will launch an experiment that could answer the question as to when the first stars and galaxies formed in the universe, and how brightly these stars may have burned their fuel.

Next month, scientists will look to answers with the launch of the Cosmic Infrared Background ExpeRiment (CIBER) on the Black Brant XII suborbital sounding rocket from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The rocket payload is designed to characterize the near infrared (IR) background light.

“The first massive stars to form in the universe produced copious ultraviolet light that ionized gas from neutral hydrogen,” Jamie Bock, CIBER principal investigator from the California Institute of Technology said in a statement. “CIBER observes in the near infrared, as the expansion of the universe stretched the original short ultraviolet wavelengths to long near-infrared wavelengths today. CIBER investigates two telltale signatures of first star formation -- the total brightness of the sky after subtracting all foregrounds, and a distinctive pattern of spatial variations.”

“The objectives of the experiment are of fundamental importance for astrophysics, to probe the process of first galaxy formation, but the measurement is also extremely difficult technically,” he added.

CIBER was built by an international collaboration of universities and government laboratories, which include the California Institute of Technology, University of California Irvine, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Korean Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

According to NASA, this will be the fourth flight for CIBER on a NASA sounding rocket, with previous launches in 2009, 2010 and 2012 from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. During its past flights, it acquired a data set that is not possible with other platforms.

After each flight, the payload was recovered for post-calibrations and re-flight.

While CIBER previously flew on a two-stage Black Brant IX sounding rocket, for this flight CIBER will be launched on a larger and more powerful rocket. The Black Brant XII is a four-stage, solid propellant sounding rocket. This will loft CIBER to a higher altitude than previously obtained and will provide a longer observation time for the instruments.

“The collection of data from the three flights allows us to compare data and rigorously test sources of potential systematic error from both the instrument and astrophysical foregrounds,” Bock added. “We have been through the end-to-end process in analyzing our data, so we understand the benefits of going with a non-recovered Black Brant XII. We also know the performance of the instrument very well from these flights and that makes us confident going forward with this more capable but final flight.”

The 70-foot-tall, four-stage Black Brant XII rocket will propel CIBER to an altitude of about 350 miles. Brock said the flight could pioneer a new direction in the astrophysics program, as it provides a significantly higher trajectory, providing about 560 seconds of flight time above 250 km (155 miles) altitude, as compared to the 250 seconds on a standard Black Brant IX flight.

“Our experience in the near-infrared waveband is that we see appreciable emission from the atmosphere up to 250 km,” said Bock. “The higher trajectory allows us to do some new things that are not possible on a Black Brant IX. For example, we expect to have enough independent images of the sky to directly determine the in-flight gain of the infrared cameras, which will allow us to measure background fluctuations in single exposures. This gives us a much more direct way to compare with satellite data than the statistical combinations we have had to use to date. The higher trajectory of course comes with a price in that the payload is not recovered.”